Acts 15 – What Was the Jerusalem Council?

As Paul and Barnabas moved into new territory they evangelized the Gentiles directly. After the initial contact in a town at the synagogue, the work of evangelism focused on the Gentiles of the community. The church was expanding into areas where the Jewish Christians would not have naturally seen as their “mission field.” As Gentiles accepted Christ and began to fellowship with ethnic Jews, some problems arose primarily concerning the Gentiles not keeping of the Law. By Acts 15 enough Gentiles have accepted Jesus as messiah and savior that some Jewish Christians in Jerusalem argue they ought to start keeping the Law, beginning with circumcision but food taboos (implied from decision in Acts 15:24-29; but see also the situation in Galatians 2:1-11-15).

We know from Acts 10 that Peter was instructed by the Lord to preach the gospel to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion and God-Fearer. Peter was hesitant to do so, and after he returns to Jerusalem the Jewish Christians there question Peter closely about why he had entered into the house of a Gentile. Peter appears to have understood that salvation was moving into the Gentile world. But Paul was doing more than preaching to God-Fearers in the synagogues who were keeping most of the Law in the first place. He was preaching the gospel to Gentiles and telling them that they did not have to keep the Law in order to be saved. This means that they did not have to worry about Jewish food laws or circumcision, two of the most fundamental boundary markers for the Jew in the first century.

Not Like This

Not Like This

Until Paul reached out to Sergius Paulus in Cyprus, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. People who were accepting Jesus in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law. They remained fully “Jewish” in every sense other than they believed the resurrected Jesus is the Messiah.T hey appear to have maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and they continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. This conflict In Acts 15 between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church. The issue appears in several of Paul’s letters (Galatians primarily, but it is also found in 1 Corinthians, Colossians; Romans 9-11 deals with the problem of the Jews in the current age).

Acts 15:1 indicates some people came from Jerusalem to Antioch and said “unless you are circumcised according to the customs taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This means a Gentile God-fearer like Cornelius must fully convert to Judaism in order to be a real follower of Jesus. This group of Jewish Christians are usually called the Judaizers, although scholars working on Galatians call them “the agitators” or simply “Paul’s opponents.” Since Galatians implies these opponents were sent by the Jerusalem community, some scholars call them the “men from James” (Gal 2:11-12, sometimes using the modifier “allegedly”).

From the book of Galatians it is clear Paul told his Gentile converts they ought not submit to circumcision since they were not under the old covenant. In fact, there is neither Jew nor Gentile in this new age. Gentiles were not converting to a form of Judaism, nor are Jews rejecting Judaism and becoming Gentiles. For Paul, what is happen is something new and radical, God is accepting both Jew and Gentile by faith apart from the works of the Law. (See this post on whether Galatians was written before or after Acts 15). The relationship between Paul’s Galatian opponents and the “certain men” who traveled to Antioch to tell Gentiles circumcision was required is complicated; for now it is important to observe there are some Jewish believers in Jesus who understand this new movement as a kind of reform movement within Second Temple Judaism and not a new religion.

In his commentary on Acts, Darrell Bock makes the excellent observation that this “council” ought to be called a “consultation” since it is not like the later church councils which decide doctrine for the church. This is quite true, although (in my view) Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not take his teaching that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law to Jerusalem in order to be approved by the apostolic community. He does not argue his case and accept the will of the apostolic community. Rather, Paul reports what it is that God has been doing and the “Judiazers” appear accept Paul’s position on the issue.

What is at stake in the Jerusalem Council? We know the Jerusalem community agrees with Paul that Gentiles ought to be free from the “yoke of the Law” as Peter puts it (15:16), but there are some issues which will cause friction in Christian communities with both Jewish and Gentile believers. What are the implications for Paul’s mission if the Jerusalem community disagreed with his law-free Gospel for the Gentiles?

Acts 15:7-11 – Putting God to the Test

Test in ProgressPeter reports his experience with Gentile salvation and argues that requiring Gentiles to keep the Law is placing an unnecessary yoke upon them (Acts 15:7-11).  He first briefly reminds the assembly of his encounter with Cornelius, a conversion which was confirmed by evidence from the Holy Spirit. At the time this was a shock to Peter and his companions, as well as to the Jerusalem community. Cornelius received the Spirit before he converted to Judaism. In hindsight, this may be the reason that the Spirit comes upon him even before baptism, so that there can be no question that Cornelius was saved apart from conversion.

When Peter describes the Law as a “yoke” on the Gentiles he is not necessarily criticizing the Law. In Judaism, the idea of being “yoked” to the Law is a positive image, although there is often the implication of completeness – if you are yoked to the Law, you are required to keep it all (Bock, Acts, 501).  To live under the yoke of the Torah or yoke of Wisdom was to live as God intended!

Sirach 51:26 Put your neck under (wisdom’s) yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.

PsSol 7.8-9 For you will have compassion on the people Israel forever and you will not reject (them); And we are under your yoke forever, and (under) the whip of your discipline.

Despite being given the Law, Peter says the forefathers were never able to “bear the yoke.” Luke 11:46 uses a similar phrase with respect to the traditions of the Pharisees, so it is possible Peter has traditions which go “beyond the Torah” in mind.  I really cannot see the requirement of circumcision for converts to Judaism as one of these sorts of burdens, however.

What is more, Peter calls the imposition of law on the Gentiles “testing God.” The verb is often used for testing something to see if it is genuine or a person to see if they will prove themselves to be true. Perhaps this is why Luke used πειράζω in 5:9, Sapphira “tests” the Holy Spirit in order to see if he will “prove true.” But to test God is always to invite disaster! Peter already knows if God has accepted a Gentile without circumcision and given the Gentiles the Holy Spirit, then it is dangerous for the Jerusalem community to require circumcision as a proof of God’s commitment to Gentile salvation.

Peter is agrees with Paul, God saves both Jew and Gentile by faith.  But God has only given the Law to Israel, not the Gentiles. He agrees with Paul’s claim that Gentiles are not converts to Judaism, although he may stop short of agreeing that Jews and Gentiles both are converts to something new, a new people of God which Paul will later call the “body of Christ” (Eph 3:1-6).  Peter is not saying that Jews ought to disregard Law, but only that Gentiles should not be given the additional of the Law.

What are the ramifications of Peter’s speech here in Acts 15? In the short term, this may sway James’s mind to accept Paul’s view of Gentiles and the Law, but do you think Peter’s views were enough to change thinking of the opponents of Paul in Galatia or in Antioch? Perhaps more interesting is the application of Peter’s agreement with Paul for modern church life and practice; do we “test God” today with any modern practices?

Acts 15 – Defining “Christian”

Church Keep OutThe first major controversy the early church dealt with strikes the modern reader a strange.  Rather than debating who Jesus was or beginning to develop the doctrine of the Trinity, the first major theological problem they need to solve was the status of the Gentile who has faith in Jesus.  Are Gentiles converting to Judaism? If so, at what level should they keep the Law? Are they “God Fearers”?  Are they Proselytes? If there is an implied secondary status for the Gentile believers, how does that status effect their participation in the church?

Why was circumcision of Gentiles such a controversial issue? In Acts 13-14 Paul had success among Gentiles and established several churches with mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles. Some Gentiles may have been “God Fearers” who worshiped in the synagogues, but others may have been converts from paganism with no grounding in the ethics of the Hebrew Bible. Jews would have continued to keep the Law as Christians, but what about these Gentiles? Should they “fully convert” and submit to circumcision?

This was not a minor difference in practice. It was seriously controversial for several reasons. First, circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. Prior to the Maccabean revolt, the practice of circumcision was suppressed and families that had their son circumcised were put to death (1 Mac 1:60-61). Some Jews forcibly circumcised Jewish boys if their families did not follow the tradition (1 Mac 2:46). This imposition of circumcision was described as “They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings” (1 Macc 2:48). Given the rising Jewish national of the middle first century, it is not unexpected some Jews might insist on circumcision for all people claiming to be Jews, including the new Messiah Jesus movement.

Second, for many in the Greco-Roman world, circumcision was one of the most ridiculous practices of the Jews.  Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94). The practice was seen as a strange mutilation of the flesh and a sign of extreme dishonor. For this reason, some Jewish men underwent surgery to reverse the makes of circumcision (1 Macc 1:15, see for example Neil J McEleney, “Conversion, Circumcision and the Law,” NTS 20 [1974]: 319-341.)

Third, Paul was teaching his Church in Galatian there is neither Jew nor Gentile in the Body of Christ (Gal 3:28). If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if Jews rejects the Law and behave like Gentiles, then the church is “Gentile.” Paul’s point is God is creating something different than Judaism in the present age. The “church” is not a form of Judaism nor is it a Gentile mystery religion. The church in Paul’s view transcends ethnicity (neither Jew or Gentile), gender (neither male or female) and social boundaries (neither slave nor free).

Authorized-PersonsFor Paul, if the Gentiles are forced to keep the Jewish boundary markers, then they have converted to Judaism and they are not “in Christ.”  This would have been radical in the first century Jewish world, but it is still remarkably difficult for Christians two thousand years later.  There is a perception people have to “act like a Christian” to be right with God. There are certain “boundary markers” defining who is “in” and who is “out.” Most of the time these are unacceptable behaviors: matters of food and drink, entertainment, etc. While doctrine is important as well, I have seen more exclusion based on how someone looked before finding out what they believe.

I do not want to reduce the controversy over circumcision to a trite discussion over whether Christians can get tattoos. Acts 15 represents the first time Christians thought about what the people of God were in the new age of the Spirit. To what extent does modern Christianity elevate practice to the level of a boundary marker? Do we still exclude people from the Body of Christ on the basis of ethnicity or social status? How does the decision of Acts 15 speak to these issues?

Acts 15 – The Significance of the Jerusalem Council

Darrell Bock makes an important observation concerning this “council.” He suggests it ought to be called a consultation rather than a council since it is not like the later “church councils” which decided doctrine for the church (Nicea, for example). This is true, although I think Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not submit his Gospel to the elders at Jerusalem and he certainly is not requesting permission to waive the requirements of the Law for Gentiles. Nor is he described as arguing his case or reaching a compromise with the apostolic community in Jerusalem.

As Paul and Barnabas moved into Asia Minor they evangelized Gentiles who were not connected with a Synagogue. These are not God-fearing Gentiles like Cornelius. Paul was expanding his mission into areas (geographically and culturally) the Jerusalem church would not have naturally considered as their “mission field.” As Gentiles accepted Christ and began to fellowship with ethnic Jews, some problems arose primarily concerning the Gentiles not keeping of the Law. These teachers are sometimes called “the Judaizers” since they were interested in converted the Gentiles to a form of Second Temple Judaism.

apostles-creed3The core of the problem is that up until Paul, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. The people accepting Christ in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law. They remained fully “Jewish” in every sense. They maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and may have continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. For many of the earliest followers of Jesus, Christianity was not a “new religion” as much as a reform movement within Judaism.

This conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church Luke reports, although Gal 2 describes Paul’s conflict with Peter and Barnabas over table fellowship. It is possible Luke alludes to the the Antioch Incident in Acts 15:1-2, but this is unlikely since the main issue in Acts is circumcision of Gentile converts, not eating with Gentiles.

Acts 15:1-2 says people from Jerusalem travelled to Antioch and were teaching people were not saved unless they were “circumcised according to the custom of Moses.” I will deal with the idea of “circumcision for salvation” in my next post, but at this it is enough to observe that some Jews refused to recognize Gentiles as “right with God” if they were not fully converted to Judaism, including circumcision.

Is it surprising there was a serious break between some teachers in Jerusalem and Paul with respect to Gentile salvation? This is the first generation of the Church, yet there is a serious problem caused by Gentiles accepting the Jewish Messiah as savior. How deep is the rift between Paul and these teachers?

Peter and the Yoke of the Law

When Paul went up to Jerusalem, he had been teaching Gentiles that they are not converting to Judaism and they are therefore not under the Jewish covenant nor the Law associated with it.  At the meeting in Jerusalem (Acts 15), Peter reports his experience with Gentile salvation and agrees that requiring Gentiles to keep the Law is placing an unnecessary yoke upon them (Acts 15:7-11).

Jerusalem CouncilPeter briefly reminds the assembly of his encounter with Cornelius, a conversion which was confirmed by evidence from the Holy Spirit. At the time this was a shock to Peter and his companions, as well as to the Jerusalem community. Cornelius received the Spirit before he converted to Judaism. In hindsight, this may be the reason that the Spirit comes upon him even before baptism, so that there can be no question that Cornelius was saved apart from conversion.

When Peter describes the Law as a “yoke” on the Gentiles he is not necessarily criticizing the Law. In Judaism, the idea of being “yoked” to the Law is a positive image, although there is often the implication of completeness – if you are yoked to the Law, you are required to keep it all (Bock, Acts, 501). Here are a few examples of this view from Sirach (200 B.C.), the Psalms of Solomon (50 B.C.) and the Mishnah (A.D. 250, but perhaps reflecting an earlier oral tradition).

Sirach 51:26 Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.

PsSol 7.8-9 For Thou wilt pity the seed of Israel for ever And Thou wilt not reject (them): But we (shall be) under Thy yoke for ever, And (under) the rod of Thy chastening.

PsSol 17:30 And he shall have the heathen nations to serve him under his yoke; And he shall glorify the Lord in a place to be seen of (?) all the earth.

m.Aboth 3:5 R. Nehunya b. Haqqaneh says, “From whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah do they remove the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor. And upon whoever removes from himself the yoke of the Torah do they lay the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor.”

m.Ber 2.2 Said R. Joshua b. Qorha, “Why does [the passage of] Shema precede [that of] And it shall come to pass [if you keep my commandments]? So that one may first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and afterwards may accept the yoke of the commandments.

Peter therefore seems to be saying that God saves both Jew and Gentile by faith, but that God has only given the Law to Israel. The law is a yoke, but is is a yoke that the Jewish people accept.  Peter agrees with Paul’s claim that Gentiles are not converts to Judaism, but rather Jews and Gentiles both are converts to something new, a new people of God, a new “body of Christ” (Eph 3:1-6). Peter is certainly not saying that Jews ought to disregard Law, but only that Gentiles ought not be given an additional burden that was given to the Jewish people.

I suspect that many (non-Jewish) Christians in the contemporary church would find the law to be a difficult burden, mostly because the western value of freedom. To a Jewish person in the first century, the Law was not difficult because it was exactly what God had called them to do. It was a responsibility, but also a response to the grace of God toward the Jewish people.

The Law was not something the Jewish people “had to do,” but rather something they “get to do” in order to honor their God.

Issues at the Jerusalem “Council”

As Paul and Barnabas moved into new territory they evangelized the Gentiles directly. After the initial contact in a town at the synagogue, the work of evangelism focused on the Gentiles of the community. The new church was expanding into areas that the Jewish church would not have naturally seen as their “mission field.” As Gentiles accepted Christ and began to fellowship with ethnic Jews, some problems arose primarily concerning the Gentiles not keeping of the Law.

jerusalem-councilWe know from Acts 10 that Peter was instructed by the Lord to preach the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius, a Roman Centurion and God-Fearer. Peter was hesitant to do so, and after he returns to Jerusalem the Jewish Christians there question Peter closely about why he had entered into the house of a Gentile. Peter appears to have understood that salvation was moving into the Gentile world. But Paul was doing more than preaching to God-Fearers in the synagogues who were keeping most of the Law in the first place. He was preaching the gospel to Gentiles and telling them that they did not have to keep the Law in order to be saved. This means that they did not have to worry about Jewish food laws or circumcision, two of the most fundamental boundary markers for the Jew in the first century.

The core of the problem is that up until Paul, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. The people that were accepting Christ in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law, they remained fully “Jewish” in every sense. They maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and they continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. This conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church. The issue appears in several of Paul’s letters (Galatains primarily, but it is also found in 1 Corinthians and Colossians as well. Romans 9-11 deals with the problem of the Jews in the current age.)

Darrell Bock makes an excellent observation concerning this “council,” it ought to be called a “consultation” rather than a council since this is not anything like the later “church councils” that decided doctrine for the church. This is quite true, although Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not take his doctrine that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law to Jerusalem in order to have it approved by the apostolic community. He does not argue his case and accept the will of the apostolic community. Rather, he reports what it is that God has been doing and the “Judiazers” accept Paul’s position on the issue.

Polhill on the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)

I realize I have wrestled with this question quite a bit lately, but I ought to address the Jerusalem Conference and Galatians one more time since I ran across something interesting on the issue.

In Polhill’s chapter on Galatians in Paul and his Letters (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999) it is less than clear if he believes that Galatians comes before or after the Jerusalem council. He gives both sides of the argument and deals with Galatians after the council. I was under the impression that he was opting for the later view, which he states clearly as his view on page 111 of P&HL. In his excellent commentary on Acts, he says “Although the two accounts contain significant differences, the similarities seem to outweigh these, and it is probable that they relate to the same event” and a bit later “it will be assumed in the commentary that follows that Paul and Luke were referring to the same conference” (Acts, NAC 26; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) page 321.

However, John Pollhill also wrote the notes on Acts for the ESV Study Bible. In this shorter commentary on Acts, he states “Though some scholars think that Paul is referring to this meeting in Gal 2:1-10, it is better to see that passage as referring to private contacts made during his famine relief visit to Jerusalem” (ESVSB, 2114). I suppose this indicates some change of thought for Polhill on the chronology of Acts and Galatians.

It is good to know that scholars develop their ideas over time.